When the Police Take Your Sons Away

Chicago women speak out on the criminalization of a generation

Revolutionary Worker #927, October 12, 1997

There is an epidemic on the loose. Police violence. Racist laws. Hanging judges. This system has criminalized a whole generation of young people. Its victims fill the tiers of America's prisons. They are pulled into squad cars and left lying bloody in a precinct cell. Their names appear in police review board reports next to the words "justifiable homicide." Every day, courtrooms preside over frameups and railroads. Loved ones, murdered or locked away for years--the injustice ripples through many families.

Once in a while the names and faces of these victims flash onto the evening news. Abner Louima, tortured by the NYPD. Rolando Cruz, unjustly imprisoned 18 years on Illinois' death row, James Quarles, executed on video by Baltimore police. But in most cases the crimes are covered up, the victims obscured and slandered, and business as usual allowed to continue.

But a movement of resistance is growing. Voices being raised that were once silent. Those who have been brutalized by the police. The relatives of those murdered by the police. Speaking out. Demanding justice. Demanding an end to this war on the people.

Over the last month, a reporter from the Revolutionary Worker spoke with six courageous women in Chicago. Each one has had their lives torn apart and their child stolen from them by the authorities. One dead from a policeman's bullet. Another living in the shadow of a lethal injection. The others confined to hellholes the government politely calls "correctional centers."

They are not passive victims. They are fighting for their children, they are fighting for others. Holding vigils on the sidewalks and on the steps of the Cook County courthouse. Speaking out at community rallies and meeting with death-row inmates.

Some have pulled together groups of family members such as "Justice Is Blind" and "Mothers Against Injustices." Others have worked with organizations opposing the death penalty or police brutality. Some have been involved in building for this year's October 22nd National Day of Protest Against Police Brutality.

Some of them are new to protest, others have marched in the streets before. They have been harassed by police and forced to make tremendous sacrifices. Yet none of them has backed down.

Their lives teach us all about the cost in human suffering this system extracts, and the strength of those who dare to resist. These are three of their stories:


A "Mother Against Injustices"

She was just a teenager then, but Bertha Escamilla clearly remembers what it was like. Living in a white Chicago neighborhood. Going to a white high school, one of a handful of Mexican kids. "When I went to the cafeteria for lunch they would throw empty milk cartons and they would tell me what am I doing there. The friends that I did have, they would tell them, leave her alone, she's not doing anything to you. They would say something in Spanish, dirty, like `give me some!' I just made up my mind that I was not going to go there. I lied and I told the principal I was moving to Texas, I felt like I wasn't learning anything because I was ashamed."

Thirty years later and Bertha had gotten far away from that day in the cafeteria. Between her long hours making cookies on an assembly line and her husband's job driving a bus, they had saved enough for a move to the suburbs. Nice neighborhood. Golfing and vacations with friends. Private catholic schools for the kids. It was the American dream come true. Until the day everything changed--when the police came and took away her son. This time there was no walking away from it. She would have to stand and fight.

"With all of my heart I believe my son is innocent." Bertha Escamilla is on a mission. Talk for five minutes and four will be a passionate argument on why her son Nick was wrongfully convicted and sent to prison. Inconsistencies and missing information in police and witness reports, contradictions in statements given to detectives, threats and coercion by police interrogators--she has pored over her son's case like Sherlock Holmes. And every time her conclusion is the same--he was framed.

The story began nearly five years ago, in February of '93, with a fatal shooting near a southwest side Chicago high school. According to witnesses, there were words between a group of teenagers in a car and some youth on a corner. Some gang slogans were shouted as the car pulled off. Minutes later, the conflict moved to a nearby alley. Shots were fired and 19-year-old Hector Olaque, who was standing in a restaurant parking lot, was fatally hit by a stray bullet.

A week after the shooting, police showed up at Nick's apartment building. According to the official report: The cops arrived late afternoon, were invited into the apartment and escorted Nick away after exchanging some pleasantries. At the station, Nick first denied any involvement, then admited that he, his friend Michael Morales, and a third teenager, Tyrone Reyna, were all involved with the shooting.

The cop version is a nice, neat and tidy package. But as Bertha tells it, it was much messier than that. She says that late in the morning, a group of detectives marched up to Nick's apartment, entered without warrant or permission, woke him up and hauled him away in handcuffs. Nick told them that at the time of the shooting, he was with Irma his wife, his daughter, and both Michael and his girlfriend, after coming home from an overtime graveyard shift at the box factory. The cops called Nick a liar, and went to work. Nick was punched, slapped, spit on, denied phone calls, and told if he didn't cooperate, his then-pregnant wife would have her baby in jail while his daughter would get shipped over to DCFS. Nick caved in and agreed to whatever the police wanted him to say.

Looking back now, Bertha figures that the cops needed to settle the case. They had been grabbing up kids left and right, trying to get someone to pin the shooting on. By the time the cops were finished with Nick, they had been up almost two days, running on caffeine and adrenalin. They were tired, pissed, and weren't about to go home without their trophy.

Bertha never doubted Nick's innocence. She had his word. She had a timecard proving Nick was at work. She had her daughter-in-law's insistence that both Nick and Michael were with her that day. All Nick had to do was tell the jury that the statement was a lie. Tell them about the beatings. The truth would set Nick free, thought Bertha--but the lawyer thought otherwise.

"Do you think the jury is going to believe that the police beat up your son and forced him into making this statement?" This was not what Bertha expected to hear from Nick's attorney. He had the awards, the citations, the reputation for doing good for the community. He was a fellow Latino. Yet here he was urging Nick to go along with a statement that put him at the scene of the crime--as if he'd win the case that way. She didn't like the idea. Nor did Nick. But when the lawyer told them it's my way or the highway, they went along. "I didn't know who to look at, I didn't know who to believe or who to trust any more. I was at his mercy." Whatever the lawyer had planned, it didn't work. Nick was found guilty and got 29 years.

Long after Nick's conviction Bertha received documents from Nick's trial lawyer that named some of the cops involved with her son's interrogation as abusers. This was information that never came out in the trial. One detective was accused of beating and choking a handcuffed suspect. Another stepped on a man's face during interrogation. Some of the detectives involved with Nick were named in a lawsuit for torturing a 13-year-old with an electric device.

All this was a lot different from what Bertha had once believed about the police: "I had confidence in them. Because we never had any problems with them. We believed in the justice. We believed that police were doing their jobs. I never felt that they were corrupted. I never looked down at them trying to cover up things. I could never believe that."

Nick's imprisonment was hard for Bertha and her family. Every visit meant being treated like a prisoner herself, but it did give her a new view of the "justice system" in this country. She confesses that before Nick was convicted, her notion of prison and prisoners was still stuck in old TV images of older white men. She was so wrong. "The first time I went to prison, I was shocked and cried. All you see are Latinos and Blacks and they're like babies--they are so young. People like middle class people, or upper class people who never goes to jail, they should try going there. I want them to come back and tell me if it's not a racial thing or why is it that they're so young?"

Bertha never gave up on fighting for her son and bit by bit she began to run into different activists. A news story on Rolando Cruz--who had been unjustly kept on death row for 18 years--gave her the name of one group. A prison visit to her son led to meeting another anti-police brutality activist. Eventually she began to get active herself. Going to events and programs on police brutality and injustice. Speaking out on Mother's Day on the steps of Cook County courthouse as part of "Mothers Against Injustice." That was far from easy for Bertha: "I was afraid. I was embarrassed. I still sometimes am afraid. When you hear other people talking and using big words, I don't want to go up there and show them that I'm not educated. It's a little bit embarrassing. I'm trying to say exactly how I feel, how I want to explain things, but sometimes it doesn't come out that way. But I want people to know about my son."

One thing that's had a big impact on Bertha is meeting other women who've walked in her shoes. "When you go out to these schools and you go to these meetings, and more parents talk about what happened to their sons, where they were found guilty and what happened when the police beat them up or whatever, I think to myself, `Oh my god!'--there's a lot more families out here. Now I know there's something wrong, even all the more."

Bertha has been through a lot. Bankruptcy from lawyer costs. Having her phone disconnected after prison calls drive the bill sky high. The physical strain of being the sole support for her family. And the pain of seeing her six-year-old grandchild beg to stay with Nick at a visit's end, still not getting that her daddy's a prisoner. But Bertha remains determined to keep fighting: "If we don't stop and do something this is gonna keep on going on. It's my son today, tomorrow it could be our grandson, or it could be your brother, or your cousin. I don't want them taking anybody else. I don't want them taking the next door neighbor or whatever. Yet you hear it every day--that they picked up somebody, that somebody got killed. I don't want to read that any more. I don't want to see that any more.... When this happened to me I thought there was no one else in this world going through this, I thought it was just me. At one time I never wanted to tell anybody what I was going through. Now I want to tell the world."

A Rude Awakening

"It's time to start naming names. Let's start naming these judges, these attorneys and these cops that are brutalizing our communities. I am sick and tired of running around here being passive, watching what I'm seeing, trying not to tip toe on anybody's toes, because it is time. I keep going to these rallies. Each time I go I'm finding 10, 20, 30 mothers and family members standing up and talking about the same thing. It is time that we stop this. It's time to stand up and say enough is enough."

It was the "Mothers Against Injustices" protest on Mother's Day, 1996, and Susan Ester was speaking on the steps of the Cook County courthouse along with a dozen other women like her, whose children have been snatched away by the so-called justice system. From a policeman's bullet. By a hanging judge. With a forced confession. Bits and pieces stolen that add up to the wholesale kidnapping of a generation.

As the marchers paused to call out to those locked behind barbed-wire fences and concrete walls, a response was heard. The unmistakable pounding of fists on windows. Both families and prisoners standing up together. A connection that no guard or judge could break. It was a small triumph.

Three years ago, protesting in front of jailhouses wasn't exactly on Susan's agenda. She had a relatively stable life. Sure there were some problems with raising her teenage son Andre on her own. But she had a good-paying government job and dreams of money, nice clothes and a beautiful house. As Susan put it, "I was a typical Black person who wanted to be middle/ upper class."

Like many Black women from her generation, Susan was active in the '60s. At age 14 she dodged bricks from white racists during civil rights marches into Chicago's Gage Park neighborhood. At 18 she joined Operation PUSH, back when it was still called Operation Breadbasket, and became the youngest political ed teacher they had. She considered herself a "rebel."

After her son became a teenager, he'd often come home saying he'd been unjustly beat up by the police. But Susan didn't believe him: "Andre would come home with bruises on him, and I would look at him and say what did you do? He would be telling about how the police had stopped him, had beat or physically abused him. I would say `Yeah right, Andre, and what did you do to make them do that? They don't just jump on you or do things like that.' He kept telling me, `Mom, I didn't do anything.' He came into it three different times, with bruises from the police. I never thought there was police brutality like that. I heard of it in the past. I pretty much had been taught myself that the police don't bother you unless you do something. I was in for a rude awakening."

That moment came one early June morning in 1994 after Susan answered the knock on her apartment door. In walked two Chicago policemen. Out went her 17-year-old son in handcuffs. They told Susan he'd be back in a few hours--but that was the last time she saw him out of a jail uniform. Upon arriving at the station he was threatened, coerced and tricked into implicating himself in a murder case.

Anthony Cox, a drug addict, had walked into an alley to get high, short-changed the dealer, got seriously injured, and died of pneumonia, a month later in the hospital. Before he died, this is what the man told the police. But the cops decided to come up with another tale. They claimed that Andre and five fellow gang members murdered the man over a drug debt. Susan says she spent that day with Andre and he simply had nothing to do with the whole thing.

A $400,000 bond on Andre told Susan the situation was serious. The inaction and indifference of the lawyers she hired let her know she had a problem. She already was spending every night on her son's case, often staying up til 6 in the morning and then dragging herself to work a few hours later. She looked for help and tried contacting a number of organizations, but had little success.

She finally got together with another women whose son was also sitting in jail on bogus charges, and together with a handful of activists they formed "Justice is Blind." "I decided I'm going to do something myself for my son, cause nobody else was doing anything," she explained. The group would go into court wearing Justice is Blind T-shirts and sit right down in front of the judge, who was not amused. Susan reached out to other women going through the same thing, working with them to put together "proof books" that would clearly show how their children were railroaded. At times it was like looking in a mirror. "I mean our cases are so similar," Susan commented, "if you took the name off you really wouldn't know whose case it was anyway. False arrest, coerced statement, police brutality--all pretty much identical."

Meanwhile, Andre remained behind bars. The trial date seemed like a mirage as every court appearance--51 in all--ended in a continuance. For three long years Susan never missed a court appearance or jailhouse visit. They could look, talk, but never touch--any physical contact with her son blocked by either a glass window or courtroom divider.

The only other communication they had was the phone. It was sporadic at best. Andre's calls to clear his mind or hear Susan's voice led to phone bills in the hundreds and frequent disconnections. (Many jails and prisons have a deal with phone companies who jack up rates for prisoner calls.)

When Andre's day in court finally arrived, it was simply a typical, straight-up railroad. The prosecution played fast and loose with facts. The key prosecution witness--a former defendant who copped to a greatly reduced sentence--not only completely contradicted his past sworn statements, but even asked the prosecutor if he was saying the right things. The judge was blatantly pro-prosecution. Andre was found guilty and given 21 years.


"It's like the system is set up, it not only degrades the inmates, it degrades the family members that come to visit them. We're treated like inmates ourselves when we come. The guards want to talk to you like you're a piece of shit."

Susan is talking about visiting her son in prison. It's almost a six-hour drive to Menard Prison, where visits are restricted to four hours at a time and only five per month. Each time the guards try to take a little piece out of inmate and family. Susan remembers back when Andre was still locked up in Cook County Jail: "When you first go in, they not only searching you, they patting you down. You go in a room you take off your shoes. They pulling up your blouse and they pulling out your bra--it's like, give me a break. Where are you gonna find anything?" Now, with each prison visit, Andre is subjected to a humiliating search. "For him to get a visit, he drops his drawers, he bends, they look. Why should he have to go through that? I don't think any human being needs to be made to feel like a dog or an animal, period."

Despite the pain of her son's conviction, Susan hasn't stopped fighting. Still planning protests. Still organizing women. Continuing to reach out to families and prisoners. "The thing I have to keep looking at--and this is how I do get the strength that I have--is because I know for a fact that here I'm going through this and there are other people going through the same thing."

"We have to keep having
our voices heard."

"Stop Police Brutality" read the words on the large black banner spread out across the front of police headquarters in downtown Chicago. The occasion was a press conference announcing the October 22nd National Day of Protest Against Police Brutality. For Judy Burden, this was her first political action.

She was one of those present that day who has suffered at the hands of the criminal "justice system." Three years ago her son Tyrone was given 25 years for a crime she knows he did not commit. A 15-year-old ripped away from his family because the police needed to wrap up a case--the same one that sent Michael Morales and Nick Escamilla away for long prison terms. On the day of the press conference, Judy had come seeking justice. Hoping that someone would hear her story.

"When they have on the news that a kid got shot by a police officer, because they thought he had a gun, or he ran, or he was going to shoot at them--I don't believe it. I would never give an officer the benefit of the doubt, never again. I would always believe the person it happened to.... I don't believe in none of the system. None of the courts. None of the judges. I don't think there ever will be a judge or a police officer, or a lawyer, that's true to anyone unless you have money."

Judy's beef with the cops and courts began long before the morning police hauled her son away. It began back when she was a 12- year-old Irish kid growing up on the edges of West Town on Chicago's near northwest side. It was a poor working-class neighborhood of Latinos and Irish, where your neighbors tended to be broke and the cops were always messing with people. Judy remembered when her older brother was hauled down to the station as a murder suspect. It made no difference to the police that he was home at the time of the crime. They needed a confession and her brother was picked to win the prize. Though the cops tried to press him into signing an incriminating statement, Judy's brother held out long enough for Judy and their mom to show up at the station to get him. His mom made a stink and he was released. "She was strong-willed," remarked Judy.

Years later, on February 11, 1993, Judy found herself reliving that same scenario. Only this time it involved one of her children and had a much different outcome. Judy was married to a Mexican man and had two sons and two daughters. That winter's morning, police had dragged her son Tyrone out of his girlfriend's home in shorts, throwing him down a staircase on the way out. He was threatened and hit on the way to the station, and slapped some more after detectives cuffed him to a chair. After rushing to the station, Judy was made to wait for hours before she was allowed to see her son. She saw a scared and crying teenager, his face reddened and swollen, marks on his neck and leg. It was only then that she found out he had signed a statement admitting his involvement in a fatal shooting.

The statement put Tyrone in a car with two gang members--Nick Escamilla and Michael Morales--exchanging words with rivals near a southwest side high school. In an alley, standing with Michael. And it made him an accomplice to murder when Michael supposedly shot 19-year-old Hecter Olaque in the chest. It's similar to the story police pinned on Nick and Michael--and from Judy's standpoint, just as phony.

Judy never doubted her son's innocence, adding, "If I didn't know for a fact that he did not do it, I wouldn't be saying anything. I couldn't live with myself knowing that he took someone's life." She could account for Tyrone's whereabouts that entire day. Two collect phone calls from the northwest side of Chicago in the early morning. On a bus with his cousin at the time Tyrone was supposedly driving around with the other two supposed offenders. Sleeping in his uncle's basement at the time the shots were fired. There was no way he could have done it.

Despite how her son was arrested, Judy still had some faith that the court would find him innocent. Hell, despite all that happened during interrogation, didn't the cops at the police station tell her that Tyrone would be coming home in a few days? She believed it. "At first I figured that the system was going to work. All we had to do was prove where he was at--my word and the people that he was with--and that was it. That's all we had to do. When they had bond court, I figured he was going to come home. Then I realized that they tricked both of us."

Instead of justice, the court proceedings picked up where the detectives had left off. The judge--whose sons are cops--dismissed the possibility of any police abuse. The defense lawyer simply threw in the towel, convincing Tyrone to cop a plea midway through the trial. Learning this only minutes before it was announced in court, Judy didn't even have a chance to discuss it with her son. She could only watch when the judge announced the sentence of 25 years in prison, and her son turned to her and asked for help. There was nothing she could do.

Looking back at what happened to Tyrone, it's clear to Judy that it wasn't evidence that put her son in jail--it was his being in a gang and, more importantly, that he was Latino. Given the system's war raging against Black and Latino youth, that was all the evidence the courts need nowadays. "If he looked like me he wouldn't have been in there," she remarks.

Her voice took on a noticeable edge--raising four Mexican kids has given Judy a view of racism that many white people don't often get to see. Go to a store in a white neighborhood and all eyes turn on her kids. Her youngest son waits for her to pick him up for work and some cops slam him into a car and accuse him of having drugs. She's seen it firsthand as well. Walking into a police station, her son being "treated like a dog"--handcuffed on the floor behind the desk, the police standing around him sarcastically going, "What's up, what's up, vato," not bothering to hide their racism because they don't realize the white woman walking in the door is that Mexican kid's mom. It never stops getting to her. "Why do you have to be a certain color to just walk in the streets and feel safe? Why do our kids have to hide when they see police? Even if they're not a gang member, if they're Latin or Black, why do they have to hide from them, why?

It's a question that Judy cannot yet answer. But what she does know is that the problem will not go away on its own, or by her being passive. That mistake she will not make again. She says:

"I think we have to keep having our voices heard, keep on and keep on and keep on. My thing was that I was so quiet in thinking that everything was going to be OK. I should have kept on saying No, no, no, and arguing back and letting people hear me. Maybe this wouldn't have happened.... I still believe--not in the system--I believe there's a lot of people like me, and that if all these people would get together we could do something, we could change something. If not for our children that are in there, for the other children that might be in there tomorrow. I know that we feel bad. I know that it hurts. But we have to help the other kids that this is going to happen to. And it will happen every single day, til someone stops police from beating kids, from shooting them for no reasons, or taking their whole life away from them."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)